This blog is authored by Sasmitha Kumaravadivel a final year law student at Law Centre, University of Delhi.
The world has been fighting an endless battle against nuclear weapons since the termination of World War II. The most popular international treaty on nuclear disarmament is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which was entered into force in 1970 and currently has 191 signatories. Article I of the Treaty forbids the sale, exchange, or transfer of nuclear weapons from nuclear weapons states i.e., China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America to the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Yet, these five countries were and are still under a legal obligation to disarm entirely. Despite the presence of an explicit prohibition, these States have aided India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan in one way or the other to develop nuclear capabilities and they are not parties to any treaty on nuclear disarmament.
The United States has positioned its tactical nuclear weapons in certain countries which are parties to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); thus, taking the count of the countries with nuclear weapons to hundreds around the world. Besides this expansion, there are a few States possessing nuclear capabilities in secrecy, thereby threatening the entire ecosystem.
There is numerous international and regional cooperation among the non-nuclear weapons States but their collective efforts in disarming the nuclear weapons from the aforesaid States have been futile. The new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is another such attempt to encumber the arms race. It proposes to strengthen the efforts of the majority of NNWS in taking stringent actions against nuclear weapon States (NWS) but the limitations still remain a huge concern. The existence of abundant vulnerabilities in securing nuclear weapons is a threat to humanity and even the simplest of a human error could bring the world to a nuclear brink.
Unhinged Arms Race
All the nuclear weapon States combined contribute to more than 16,000 nuclear weapons present in the world currently and have the potential to destroy this planet over and over again. Until the end of the Cold War, escalation in the proliferation of nuclear weapons was terrifying even though the five countries ratified various bilateral and multilateral treaties including the NPT. Even today, Russia and the United States have around 2,000 nuclear weapons on high alert to be launched immediately without any precaution. Initially a member of the NPT, North Korea withdrew from its commitment due to nuclear threats from the United States and acquired nuclear weapons through illicit means. Such deeds of increasing rivalry, border disputes, and regional disparities among the nations are the major reasons for the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially among the NNWSs.
States such as Syria and Iran have been covertly deploying nuclear weapons within their territories forbidding proper vigilance by the international community. Iran has been continuously accused of violating IAEA safeguards in developing nuclear energy for peaceful use. It is being criticized for enacting a legislation in December 2020 that is deviant of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); because it enables enrichment and storage of uranium more than the proposed limit which initially led the United States to quit the agreement constraining their relationship.
Non-nuclear weapon as well as nuclear weapon States have increased their production and usage of civil nuclear energy. This activity has also become a growing concern because of its destructive nature. For example, the Fukushima Daiichi Accident in the year 2011, started as a natural calamity and transformed into a nuclear disaster by releasing highly radioactive substances in and around the nuclear power plant which would affect thousands of lives for years to come. Evidence supports that humans and technology are prone to error. Inadequate security in many countries make the nuclear arsenals vulnerable to terrorism and more importantly, cyber-terrorism.
Not All Bad News
Three main pillars of the NPT are (i) nuclear non-proliferation, (ii) nuclear disarmament, and (iii) peaceful use of nuclear energy. It was perceived that if one of the pillars falls down, the NPT would also collapse. This perception has been proved wrong in more than one instance. Nuclear disarmament has been unsuccessful; however, many nations have accomplished great strides in upholding the other two pillars of the treaty.
Improvement in the number of frameworks to promote the cause of the non-nuclear weapon States indicates the same. Subsequent meetings and parallel reviews of the parties belonging to NPT have inspired initiatives such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), 13 practical steps, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Humanitarian Pledge, Conferences on Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, an open-ended working group (OEWG), and various other multilateral nonproliferation diplomacies.
The New START Treaty between the United States and Russia is successful to some extent in limiting and consequently reducing the number of nuclear arsenals to be deployed by each country. In addition to the above mentioned bilateral and multilateral agreements laid down with an aim to build a nuclear-weapons-free-world, some unilateral efforts are encouraging. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons present in their territory soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Also, South Africa dismantled the nuclear weapons it once possessed. All these efforts have significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons present in the world.
The Latest Treaty
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is one of the best initiatives of the United Nations so far since it is a legally binding instrument prohibiting the existence or development of nuclear weapons among its signatories. It came into force on January 22, 2021, 90 days after ratification by the Republic of Honduras (50th State) on October 24, 2020. The preamble comprehensively acknowledges the disastrous effects of nuclear weapons on humans and the environment. Provisions of this Treaty appear to be harsh prima facie. For example, Article I prohibit the States-parties from threatening to use, using, developing, stockpiling, etc. of nuclear weapons nor to assist any State (signatory or otherwise) in these activities. Article IV legally binds a nuclear weapon State to accede either by destroying the weapons before or after signing the Treaty, therefore, ensuring total disarmament. Similarly, withdrawal from the Treaty is a tedious process involving a year-long waiting period and preventing the States in conflict from withdrawing until the end of the said conflict.
The nuclear weapon States initially boycotted and later on created brouhaha during every discussion held for the development of this framework. Woefully, none of the States possessing nuclear weapons nor the States under extended nuclear deterrence have acceded to the Treaty due to the ‘alleged’ circumspection of opening up the option of forum shopping. France, Russia the United States, and the United Kingdom have asserted that they would never join the Treaty. It was also purported that the treaty would only widen the legal gap between the States by further destabilizing the incumbent nonproliferation regime. All these allegations seem to be baseless and it illustrates the reluctance of these States in pursuing nuclear disarmament. It is indeed daunting to see incessant setbacks in the initiatives taken up by the majority of the States who are truly apprehensive about the future of humanity. Sooner or later these efforts might come to a complete standstill. It has to be realized that this treaty is the best shot that the world could take in order to withdraw itself from the cataclysm.
Nuclear weapons need not be used or threatened to be used to create fear among people. Their simple presence in the world in itself is considered diabolical. It is believed that nuclear proliferation would cause irrevocable damage to the security of nations by increasing the possibility of a nuclear war, intentionally or otherwise. Humanitarian impacts are still unimaginable. More and more treaties are piling up without any of them stipulating a long-term solution against nuclear nonproliferation. Sanctions imposed by the parties of a treaty on other States for refusing to reduce or destroy nuclear weapons are often short-lived and harmless.
There are numerous other ways through which the international community could force the NWS to denuclearize. But there is an absolute lack of determination and leadership among the countries. It is extremely difficult to arrive at a consensus, nonetheless, there is an unerring need for a more fast-tracked, realistic and rigid international cooperation on disarmament. The prospects of nuking the moon and mars are far more frightening. With the rising participation of private players in outer space-related activities, security threats for nuclear weapons are simultaneously increasing. Nations should strive to work for a peaceful co-existence on this planet before exploiting another planet in our galaxy, or in our universe for that matter.
“Nuclear disarmament is the only sane path to a safer world.” – Ban Ki-moon